Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods starts with two layers. On the first, we have a group of five students heading out to a distant relative’s cabin in the woods for a vacation; they ignore the absurdly obvious and ominous warning signs on the way and soon find themselves ruthlessly hunted down by what the second layer refers to as a family of Redneck Torture Zombies. That second layer’s composed of men in suites, watching everything that happens in the cabin on innumerable screens, twisting the vacationers into horror movie archetypes, and triggering the various beasties at their disposal, of which the Rednecks were just one. The scientists, in short, are running a real live torture film where the blades actually cut and the dead stay down (or rise back up to tear out your throat), and the vacationers are trapped in the hell that the scientists create.

It’s a damn intriguing premise, one ripe for subversion, and Whedon and Goddard don’t let it off lightly. Being five relatively normal human beings, the vacationers don’t conform immediately to the stupidities expected of them by horror clichés. So the scientists force them to conform, manipulating them with chemicals to force them into their roles. One scene has a character proposing that they split up, a suggestion that’s roundly shot down by his fellows – until gas rises from the floorboards, and they all see the great merits of cowering alone in their rooms until the beasties come for them. The writers’ targets aren’t confined to those present at the filming. Scenes of the scientists laughing and being delighted by the vacationers’ plight and slaughter disgust us, yet we are watching in the same way as they are, just at one more remove. The delightfully referential stew of dozens and dozens of horror clichés that the writers’ have created allows them to go wild towards the end, culminating in one particularly spectacular scene where a hallway full of armed soldiers is decimated by an endless swarm of different creatures.

The fact that there was a handy button or two in the scientists’ installation for the main characters to push in order to unleash hell on earth, however, leads us to my first big problem with The Cabin in the Woods: it is an idiot plot through and through. Without exception, every one of the movie’s developments, twists, and turns relies entirely on the characters being too stupid to properly get out of bed in the morning or tie their shoes. For the vacationers being slaughtered by Rednecks, this makes sense. They’ve been shoved into that role, after all, and the silliness of it all is part of the charm.

But the scientists are just as stupid. Hell, so far as we can tell, the entire planet’s on that infantile level of intelligence. Why is there no real protocol for a beastie breakout in the scientists’ installation? In fact, why do the beasties’ elevators lead to the installation itself at all? Why are the unused beasties kept perfectly ready to go, while we are on the subject? Why can’t any of the scientists properly lock a door? And so on and so forth. The incompetence of every single character makes the first layer’s intentional predictability hold true for the entire movie. When you know that everyone’s a fool, there’s no question of their survival, and you are just sitting back and waiting for their grisly death. Not that it’s unpleasant waiting, mind you; the spectacle’s still there. But the tension has all gone out of it.

The scientists aren’t playing sadists just for kicks; they’re in it to save the world. The Old Gods or Ancient Ones beneath the earth demand these sacrifices. If the blood ever stops, and if the game fails to be played out exactly as these eldritch deities command, they will rise and end the earth. Interestingly enough, therefore, the scientists might even be the good guys. And the vacationers, or at least the two that survive the cabin and are determined to do whatever they must to stay alive, might even be called the villains.

It’s an interesting inversion, and it’s also one that is less examined than an extra’s shirt buttons. The movie seems to simply go along with their decision to stay alive at the cost of the entire human race. To be fair, the pothead does mumble generic crap about how we need to tear down the system and so on. But there’s no argument for why presented. You might be able to make a very interesting movie that argues you don’t have an obligation to give your life to a system that oppresses you (by, say, living out horror movie clichés upon your flesh), but Whedon and Goddard don’t argue the point; they simply assume that everyone will go along with them. Well, uh, no. Why would the world be a better place, again, if it ceased to exist? You're going to have to spell that one out for me.

The Cabin in the Woods plays an interesting game with our expectations of horror movies, and it uses those expectations and clichés to create a fair few great scenes. Ultimately, however, it falls for one of the genre’s worst clichés – the abject stupidity of every character. Furthermore, the film’s thematic heart and ending are both left utterly unsubstantiated and unexplored. In the end, I felt rather like a master comedian had started to tell a joke, proceeded through an extremely obvious but nonetheless elaborate set up, and then had wandered off stage before finishing up the punch line.


  1. I'm not all that sure what you're talking about when you say "Why would the world be a better place, again, if it ceased to exist?".

    Do you think that qualitative assessments of better or worse have some sort of objective reality?

    Because if they don't (which is what I'd assert), then your question is meaningless, because only a person can make such assessments, and since the end of "Cabin in the Woods" gets rid of all people, nobody can form such opinions.

    Better and worse don't exist if people don't, basically.

  2. Well, yes, in the abstract I would agree with you. But it's a person making the choice as to whether it would be better or worse if the world ceased to exist. As a person, it seems reasonable to assume he is considering whether it would be better or worse for other persons. I don't see why that answer would be yes. Perhaps "indifferent," but I'm not quite getting to a "yes."

  3. Oh, ok. I guess it's a question of what you believe about people.

    I bought the idea that they would be too upset to either adequately consider the consequences of their actions, or to care about those consequences.

    In my experience, it doesn't take much emotional distress for people to become completely unreasonable, especially in situations for which they have no experience or training.

    If you believe that they would still be making reasonable decisions at that point, then I understand why you wouldn't like the ending.

  4. Hey,

    I really liked this review. I didn't have as much of a problem with the "purge" button as you did, but then again, I wasn't really thinking critically about the movie.

    Now that I have my iPad I feel kind of bad because I read your site through Flipboard and I don't THR as much as I used to. I'm still reading though!